The Mazda3, the replacement for the 323, is a significant step forward in style, construction and mechanical technology. It projects a forceful appearance with pleasing styling lines.
SP23 versions have deeper front and rear bumpers, front fog lamps, side sill skirts and a rear spoiler.
Mazda3 uses a new generation 2.0 litre and 2.3 litre engines, first seen in the Mazda6.
The 2.0 litre produces 104 kW of power at a high 6500rpm with 181 Nm of torque at 4500rpm which provides lively performance when pushed.
At slower speeds, energetic mid-range torque gives good flexibility, making the vehicle easy to drive in traffic. SP23 engines have sequential variable valve timing and variable length intake manifold tubes for enhanced performance and pulling ability. Brisk and spirited performance of SP23 is not achieved until engine revs climb above 3500rpm where the valve timing takes effect.
We found the 2.0 litre version easier and more pleasant to drive in traffic and during normal day to day motoring with its flexible midrange torque and throttle response, wear-as the 2.3 litre version felt it needed to get moving and would be the preferred option for regular open road driving.
The five speed manual transmission has a cable operated shift mechanism with a short throw, positive movement between the ratios. The four speed automatic is smooth and through the ratio changes when in the normal automatic position and is electronically controlled depending on throttle inputs and vehicle loading operation.
'Activematic' shift selection allows gear shifting to be effected by the driver as conditions and driving habits dictate Suspension design, layout and geometry provides sure footed and responsive handling ability, although this is to the detriment of ride comfort. The firm suspension settings result in road shocks being transmitted into the cabin.
Additionally, the Bridgestone tyres fitted are very noisy on New Zealand's chip seal roads and the hatch version being noticeably noisier than the sedan with a deep drumming in the rear.
The electric-hydraulic, power assisted steering provides good responsive feel on the open road and easy loadings for parking. Anti-lock brakes with electronic force distribution is fitted to all models of the range and give excellent stopping ability with confident pedal feel.
Seating provides excellent support and comfort with plenty of adjustable movement and the driver's position getting height/lift by a single lever at the side. Steering wheels of all models are tilt and reach adjustable for driver comfort.
Rear positions get plenty of leg and knee space with a slight 15mm more headroom available in the hatch over the sedan. All versions have three point lap/diagonal inertia reel safety belts for the three rear seat occupants.
Boot capacity is a bit tight in the hatch however; rear seat backs of all versions can be split-folded to increase carrying capacity. Where the rear door of the hatch provides a wide opening to the roof, the opening of the sedan is narrow and restrictive by the lid hinging at the base of the rear window.
All models carry a temporary space saver spare wheel. There is not an abundance of storage boxes around the cabin although the deep spacious glove box is said to be able to swallow a laptop computer.
Wide pockets moulded in both front doors include bottle receptacles.
Standard equipment is very high for the entry GLX version and includes remote central locking with engine immobiliser, electric windows with auto down and up for the drivers glass, air conditioning, intermittent wipers with single wipe operation and four speaker stereo with single CD player.
GSX models gain 16-inch alloy wheels and an in dash 6 CD stacker, while SP23 has 17-inch alloy wheels, variable intermittent wipers, front fog lamps, climate control air conditioning with outside temperature function and leather steering wheel with remote stereo controls.
Mazda3 are built using a body structure construction which is designed to disperse crash impact energy around the passenger compartment and caries a high level of occupant safety features.
All versions have dual stage, driver and front passenger air bags with GSX and SP23 models getting front side and front/rear curtain air bags. Front seat belts have pretensioners to tighten the belt in the event of a crash.
Side impact beams are fitted to all doors and the steering column is collapsible for driver body protection. Let down only by a harsh, low speed ride, and intrusive road noise into the cabin which is not up with the class leaders. Mazda3 is an impressive vehicle with plenty of appeal.
The spacious cabin offers excellent comfort for all occupants with loads of charisma for the sporty driver. Both engines provide good performance and work well with either the manual or automatic transmissions.